10-31-14 - No Rose Garden

When I was young(er), there was a hit on the radio that went “I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden; along with the sunshine there’s gotta be a little rain sometimes.” (Yikes, I even remember the lyrics! – worse yet, there’s a video!)

I’m reminded of this little ditty by the last two Beatitudes:
“‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’”

Lest Jesus’ disciples think that following him was their road to glory, he’s telling them right up front to expect flack, slander, even persecution. This will be a sign that they’re in the big leagues, up there with the great prophets of Israel, who had a message from God the leaders didn’t want to hear. Look what happened to them: flogging, imprisonment, job loss – sometimes death. Jesus does specify that it’s persecution for the sake of righteousness, or for his sake. Ordinary suffering and mistreatment don’t buy us any reward. But suffering for the revelation he has come to proclaim and demonstrate? That will be honored. In a way Jesus is saying they are on the road to glory, but they’ll be in glory land before they taste it.

In America and Europe we don’t face much persecution for being Christian – and there’s always the question of whether or not we present enough evidence to convict us. But if we’re serious about our faith and vocal about how our relationship with God in Christ affects our choices, decisions, priorities in how we spend our time, money and relationships, we may face derision, even some social cost.

Now, if you’ve been keeping score, you’ll notice I skipped one: 

"‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.'"

This may be the most important one - and, thanks to Monty Python’s Life of Brian (“Did he say, 'blessed are the cheesemakers?”) perhaps the best known. I’ve grouped it with these persecution clauses because a true peacemaker is apt to make enemies, ironic as that may seem. Peacemaking is not for the faint of heart – just ask Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King, Jr., to cite a few obvious choices. Or Jesus. Many people are deeply invested in their enmities, in us/them thinking, in the political and economic gains to be had by demonizing others. If we take up the ministry of forging peace, we should expect flack, even shrapnel.

How do these beatitudes hit you today? Can you relate to the promise of persecution, and to the eventual reward?
How have you experienced the ministry of peace-making? Are there ways your church community could become more active in that focus? What prayers rise up in you today?

Jesus doesn't promise us a rose garden. He doesn’t promise us a return to the garden of Eden. 

He promises to make us part of God’s mission to reclaim, restore, and renew the garden of this earth and all its inhabitants. That breathtaking invitation is worth suffering for.

10-30-14 - Holiness

Holiness is not a word we hear a lot these days. People speak of “the holy,” and of “wholeness,” but holiness is not in vogue. In an age when the disadvantaged hunger for food and thirst for water, while the well-fed hunger for things and thirst for distraction, who yearns for righteousness?

Holiness is at the heart of Jesus’ prescription for disciples:
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Righteousness and purity of heart seem like overlapping categories, if not one and the same. Righteousness, being right, true, justified (as in a printer’s page), means being grounded in God’s love and goodness, and purity of heart is an undivided focus on God. To thirst for righteousness is to desire integration, to be authentically ourselves, to have our inner life and our outer life cohere, to say what we mean and mean what we say. When we really yearn only for God, we are promised we will see God - and people see God in us.

Between righteousness and purity of heart on his list, Jesus places mercy, perhaps in recognition that there is no such thing as personal righteousness without engagement with other people. As soon as we engage other people, we will face the need to be merciful, as we hope they will be with us. Trying to be righteous without being merciful makes us self-righteous. Purity of heart requires compassion.

As we pray today, let’s locate in ourselves that thirst for holiness and “singleness of heart,” as the Prayer Book puts it. Let’s let that hunger fill us like an empty stomach does. Let’s ask ourselves where the flow of mercy in us might have hit a dam, and invite the Holy Spirit to help us remove those obstacles. The promise for us, as we orient ourselves to desire righteousness, mercy and purity of heart, is that we will be filled, we will receive mercy, and we will see God.

At my church we have taken to singing a setting of the Latin American Bread Prayer composed by Andy Barnett (I couldn’t get this link to play, but maybe you can…). The words are simple and sink into the soul:

To all those with bread, give hunger for justice,
And to all those who hunger, give bread
. Amen?

10-29-14 - The Poor, the Sad & the Passive

Now here’s a recruitment slogan: “Calling all who are poor, all who are sad, all who are passive – I’m going to change the world with you!” These may not be the qualities we associate with leadership and success… and maybe Jesus is inviting us to reconsider our criteria for leadership. The men and women who were his closest followers were not the cream of society’s crop – Galilean fishermen, tax collectors, women with “reputations.” And yet we honor them and know their names 2000 years later.

The first three “beatitudes” deal with emotional conditions:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are the grief-stricken, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

What does “poor in spirit” mean? I think of it as being at a low ebb, our spiritual energy sapped by fatigue or sadness or disappointment, our faith less than robust. I suspect most of us have felt poor in spirit. But we, Jesus promises, will inherit the fullness of God’s spiritual realm, the Life of God.

Similarly, most of us know what it’s like to mourn; for some, it seems to go on forever. But Jesus says we will be comforted, which doesn’t end the mourning, but can shift it into a different key, so that we manage to sing a new song even in our grief.

Meekness may be the one attribute here that isn’t as common to us. I think of “meek” as passive, not pushy, not forwarding ones own agenda. We often associate “meek” with being a doormat. But I remembered hearing once that “meek” may not be the best translation of the Greek. In French that word is rendered “debonair.” That gives a different slant. As an essay I found online says, “Gone was Casper Milk Toast. Instead, my mental images were of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, or of Gene Kelly, singing in the rain. I would so much rather be debonair than meek! The debonair are people who move with grace through life. They have style. Blessed are the debonair!”

The writer goes on to say that the Greek word can be translated ‘gentleness.’ "The word can refer to a strong animal such as a horse, who is well-trained and gentle in spirit, in spite of its strength. It can also mean the quality of being teachable — modest, generous, humble and considerate. In other words, those who are blessed are those who have strength, and yet use it with gentleness.”

I don’t know if you’re feeling debonair today, but I hope you have a sense of your strength and your gentleness, and know that God can work through us best when we combine the two. Perhaps that’s what it means to “inherit the earth” – to be fully participating in God’s mission in strength and gentleness. And when grief and dispiritedness are upon us, we might pray for more of the gentle power of the Spirit to fill us, to pump up our tires (the word for spirit is pneuma, after all…), to transform our mourning into joy.

In making these feelings markers of discipleship, Jesus honors our emotional truth and invites us to bring all of who we are each day into the fullness of our God-Life.

And he offers hope for us when we’re not feeling so strong, reminding us, “This is not the end of your story.” He is the end of our story, and he will lead us there, as we follow.

10-28-14 - Blessed

There is only one gospel passage assigned for All Saints Day – every year, it’s the same old Beatitudes. This has always rankled; I’ve tended to dismiss the Beatitudes as a how-to guide (albeit, Jesus’ how-to guide...) and I’m not big on the idea of people striving for sainthood. That’s God’s to give.

But it’s time for me to get over this little prejudice and more fully explore this famous laundry list of saintly characteristics – remembering that “saint” means Christ-follower. Jesus is speaking to his followers on a “mountain” – probably a hill, but Matthew wants to draw some parallels between Moses giving the Law on Mount Sinai in the old covenant, and Jesus giving the “law” of the new covenant. (Luke, a Gentile, seems less interested in demonstrating continuity between the Jesus movement and its Jewish roots. In his Gospel, this scene takes place on a plain, on level ground – reinforcing his theme of Jesus as the great leveler, equalizer.)

Jesus has been teaching them every chance he gets, but on this day he has a particular message. In the face of the hardship they will endure as his followers, he wants them to understand an important marker of their identity as his disciples. He wants them, above all, to know they are, blessed. This is the one word he repeats over and over.

What does it mean to be blessed? It means to stand in the light of God’s love and favor. Just as we cannot make ourselves saints, we cannot bless ourselves – we have to let it happen to us.

And God’s blessing, it would seem, is often counter-intuitive – the attributes Jesus associates with blessing are not the one the world equates with success. Once again Jesus overturns the “logical” order of human priorities and introduces the upside-down reality of God’s realm. The people of Jesus’ day thought prosperity and health and offspring were signs of God’s blessing… Jesus says, “Look deeper.”

With what do you associate blessing? In what ways do you feel blessed or unblessed?
Might you ask the Holy Spirit to show you in what ways God sees you as blessed? I often invite us to hold other people in our mind’s eye and imagine them showered with God’s holy, healing light – that is an image of blessing. So today maybe we want to imagine ourselves in that light. And know we are blessed, no matter what we feel like on a given day.

As followers of Christ, we are blessed to be a blessing. We are one of the ways God is blessing the world. And we’re a whole lot more effective when we’re in touch with our blessedness. The next time someone says to you, “God bless you,” whether or not you’ve sneezed, say, “I'll take it!”

10-27-14 - Saints All

Next Sunday has a normal set of readings in sequence with what we’ve been reading. It is also the Sunday after All Saints Day, which has different readings that will be heard in many churches. It is the Gospel for All Saints Day that I will focus on those this week.

But first, let’s talk about what is a saint. Or, more properly, who is a saint.

There is a reason we call it "All Saints" – that reminds us that all who follow Christ as Lord are seen as saints of God. “Saints” was the term used for Christ followers; Paul would write a letter to “the saints who are in Corinth,” or “the saints who are in Philippi.” It referred to those called out and set aside, consecrated, made holy to the Lord, the way we use special consecrated vessels for holy rituals.

It does not mean “a really good person” or “holier than thou.” In fact, true saints are humble enough to be quite aware of their faults and weaknesses. Our doctrine of saints recognizes that saints are made, not born. We are made holy by being united with Christ, not through our own attributes. Many of our best known saints, like St. Augustine or St. Francis of Assisi, had quite rakish pasts before the Holy Spirit got hold of them. Some, like St. Teresa of Avila, were quick of wit and sharp of tongue. Some were martyrs, some monastics, some simple, some highly educated. Saints come in all shapes and sizes.

What kind of saint are you? When are you most aware of having been made holy? Another way to ask that is, when are you most aware of the Holy Spirit working through you?

If you want to become more aware of your sainthood, that’s a prayer I believe God is always pleased to answer, “Make me more holy, Lord.” If you pray that prayer today, I invite you also to ask the Spirit to show you all the ways you already reflect God’s holiness and love. Saints are a work in progress.

The Holy Spirit always leaves a residue, I think… Thus we become tinged with the holy, and if we keep inviting the Spirit to dwell in, with and through us, that tinge of holiness grows stronger and thicker until the holiness is more obvious than the mere humanity. And then, lo and behold, someone is liable to say of you, “S/He is such a saint!”

10-24-14 - The Perfect Hanger

“On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” Jesus said about the commandments he considered the greatest – to love God with all our heart, soul and mind, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

I can be a bit literal at time, so I’m visualizing a hanger, one which can support the fullness of God’s revelation, perfected in Christ. This hanger, like many in our closets, has three sides. The widest, bottom rod is our love for God, and the two angled sides, which rest on the base and join together at the top, are our love for neighbor and for ourselves – which, as we have observed this week, are interdependent.

If we can manage to fully engage our love for God, neighbor and self, and give each of these loves equal energy, I believe our lives will be more centered and fulfilling. I believe we will find ourselves thriving in the light of God, putting more and more of our life-blood into the enterprise of love. And that, I would assert, is what we are here for. I think that is what Jesus came to make possible for us.

How might we orient ourselves into a more conscious, daily engagement in loving God, neighbor and self? We could take the hangers in our closet as a daily reminder. When you take out clothing in the morning, remember: “Oh yeah, my biggest job today is to love God, my neighbor and myself.” And when you put your clothes away in the evening (we all hang up our clothes every night, right?) we might review how well we remembered. And gradually this will become second nature, and we’ll see the fruit of it in our lives.

And when it becomes second nature to more and more people, we start to see the fruits in the world around us.

Paul wrote to the Colossians: "Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience… And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity."

We have a closet full of hangers, with all the holy clothing we need. And what supports these hangers? The perfect love of God, which can bear all the weight we need it to. This love is what enables us to love.

10-23-14 - Loving Ourselves

Many people have a hard time with the notion of loving themselves. There is a self-suppressing strain running through Western culture, and the Christian church hasn’t always presented Jesus’ teachings about self-denial in the most wholesome way. We often equate loving self with selfishness, self-centeredness, self-involvement. And yet, right here at the center of Jesus' greatest commandment is the order to love ourselves as we love our neighbors.

If this is no challenge for you, great; you have a wonderful gift of grace and equilibrium to share with the world. If loving yourself does not come naturally – it doesn't for me – here are some ideas to help us move into this way of living.

First, see yourself as a child of God, created in love, for love. If you did the prayer exercise I suggested yesterday, asking the Spirit to give you a glimpse of how God sees you, you might have had an interesting revelation of your belovedness. (What emerged for me when I prayed was a ball of energy throwing off sparks… but in a good way!) If you want a scriptural reminder of your chosen-ness, I recommend the first chapter of Ephesians.

When we are reminded whose we are, it opens the way to better discovering who we are. So a next step would be to look at our wounds and faults with compassion instead of judgment. What prejudices have we been turning on ourselves, perhaps more harshly than we'd ever apply to our neighbors? If we are given to self-criticism, let’s offer it the way we would want to correct a small child, not by crushing her spirit, but calling her to her better self.

Then we might move beyond tolerating our “shadow sides” to actually celebrating our gifts and strengths. What are your best qualities? What is delightful about you? What do other people love in you? What do you love? And let’s think about what kind of a future we desire for this special and beloved creature of God. What do you want in your life? What do you want to do/see/experience/taste/give/receive?

Loving our selves and loving our neighbors need to go hand in hand, for fundamental to the whole exercise is the understanding that we are equal in God’s sight, no better, no worse, no more important or less, no more or less worthy of regard and honor and dignity and love.

When we fully comprehend that, loving God with our whole heart and mind and soul will be a piece of cake; we’ll simply be recognizing the inherent beauty of God’s creation, and acknowledging that God does flawless work. You are Exhibit A.

10-22-14 - Loving Our Neighbor

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself." That’s what Jesus said the second core of the Law was:
Love God with all your being, and your neighbor as yourself.

One temptation with this commandment can be to start asking, “Then who is my neighbor?” Another lawyer of Jesus’ day asked him just that question. Jesus answered with the story of the Good Samaritan, one conclusion of which is that our neighbor can be someone we don’t like or trust very much. Our neighbor can be anyone, and is everyone.

That’s not my question today. I want to focus more on the second part of the verse – “as yourself.” Jesus (and the compilers of the law codes in Leviticus) links love for self and love for other in a way that merits deeper exploration. What does it mean to love my neighbor as I love myself?

Since we don’t always love ourselves very well, we don’t always love our neighbors well either. If we are very critical of ourselves, we’ll extend that tendency to other people. That is one way of loving our neighbors as ourselves – but not very life-giving.

How else do we love ourselves? Most of us, whatever our insecurities or self-criticisms, are pretty protective of our safety – maybe loving our neighbors as ourselves means we’re equally concerned about theirs. And most of us are wired to be sure we have enough to eat and a sheltered place to live… a godly love for neighbor would include wanting the same for them. Yikes - this is a lot! Is it just too much to love our neighbors as ourselves? Too hard?

I don’t think God calls us to anything his Spirit can’t equip us to handle. We just have to let the Spirit rewire the faulty coding we get from this world, the message that says put yourself and your own kind first, don’t trust the Other. Even with the most expansive sense of possibilities, though, I don’t know that we’ll ever get to where we can feed everybody in the world, will we? Except that we know there is enough food; it’s just not distributed very equitably. So maybe loving our neighbor as ourselves motivates us to work on that challenge, or on housing, or security. Maybe we feed ourselves a little less so our neighbor has more.

Ultimately, this neighbor-loving business has to happen one at a time. When we go global in our thinking, we easily end up discouraged and paralyzed. But one neighbor today? Maybe one you hadn’t planned on loving? Maybe start simply by praying for that person to be blessed? That we can do…

In prayer today I invite you to think first of yourself. Try to imagine for a moment how God sees you. You can even ask the Spirit to give you a glimpse of what God sees in you. Love what you see, or at least trust in God’s love for you.

And then imagine someone who is your neighbor. If you’re feeling adventurous, don’t come up with a name; ask God, “Who is the neighbor you want me to love today?” Who knows whose face is going to come up in your mind’s eye! Sit with the image. Ask how you’re being called to love that person.

In a world where we often assume scarcity, neighbors are one thing we’ll never run out of. And learning to love them is a challenge for our whole lifetime. We may as well get good at it, because I have a feeling that is just what we’re going to spend eternity doing.

10-21-14 - Commanded to Love

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 
 So reads what Jesus calls the first and greatest commandment. We might call this the goal of the life of faith, to love God fully, without reservation, with all of our being.

Which kicks up all kinds of questions in me: Do I love anyone or anything with all of my heart? Do you?
In an age when our attentions are ever more fragmented, what would it feel like to focus all our heart, all our spirit, even all our mind on one thing, one person, one God?

Do I even love God at all? To think of loving God presupposes a relationship. I believe that is the richest promise of the Christian life, that Jesus has made possible true relationship with the Living God. So I ask, am I engaged in that relationship, or looking on from the sidelines? Are you?

And under these questions lurks an even deeper one: Can one be commanded to love in the first place? Isn’t love by its very nature spontaneous and freely given?

I am not a Hebrew scholar, and don’t know the nuances of the word translated here as “love.” The English language is limited in its vocabulary for love – we use one word to cover an array of different kinds of love. The Greeks used at least four, and I don’t know about the ancient Hebrews. I suspect this word contains shades of reverence and awe, even fear, and not simply “love” the way we think of loving our parents or children or lovers or friends. How do we name the love of a creature for its creator, of an estranged orphan for its reconciling parent, of a broken one for his healer? It would seem to me that, to fully love God, we must first fully recognize our need for God's unconditional love for us.

How do we begin? How about with the three components spelled out, heart, soul and mind. In prayer today, let’s come into a quiet, centered place, and speak simply and honestly to God about where we are in relation to loving God. Good relationships are based on honesty and authenticity. We don’t have to pretend to feel more than we do, or less.

Assuming we want to love God more fully, let’s offer our heart – and spend a little time on what’s in your heart. Whenever I think about mine, I envision a messy, cluttered place. What do you see? Can you offer it to God in love, no matter what it looks like?

Then let’s offer our soul, perhaps asking the Holy Spirit to give us an image of our soul. What do you see or discern? Can you offer your spirit to be infused with the Holy Spirit?

Then let’s offer our minds… perhaps even more cluttered than our hearts. What would it feel like to focus your mind on loving God, even for a few moments? I believe God is delighted even with our desire to do so.

What might it feel like to love with all the fullness of our being, no separation, no shadow? I confess it scarcely seems possible to me, in this world. Might it become our aspiration, to love God this way? I suspect that if we can, we’ll be better able to love ourselves – and others.

10-20-14 - Love and Law

Another week, another Jesus test. For the past few Sundays our appointed Gospel passages have been one long game of “gotcha” between Jesus and the religious leaders, them trying to catch him saying the wrong thing, and him neatly sidestepping their loaded questions. In last week’s test, he prevailed yet again – but it turns out that was only against one set of interrogators, the Sadducees. This week we see the Pharisees get back in the game – and since they were legal specialists, they asked Jesus a question about the Law. Any religious teacher worth his salt should know his Torah.

“When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’”

Easy A. Jesus answers with the best known of all commandments:  

“He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.”

No surprises here. This is indeed the most basic command, where Israel’s relationship with God begins, by loving God fully. It is the heart of the Jewish prayer, the “Shema.” Jesus might have checked the box and moved on – but he wasn’t finished. He went on to cite a much less known commandment and put it on a par with the first: “And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

What’s this? An obscure half-verse from Leviticus is up there with the Shema? Yes, Jesus says - 

“On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

He isn’t making this up – he is quoting the Law as given by Moses. Nonetheless, in combining these two commandments Jesus presented a radical new way of seeing God and justice. It’s not enough to love God, he suggests – we have to live that love by the way we love our neighbors and even ourselves.

We’ll unpack these different kinds of love throughout this week. Today let’s explore this linkage Jesus makes. Do you associate loving yourself with loving God?
Do you connect God and neighbor?
Do you feel the most love for God, for your neighbor, or for yourself? 

How might the way we love our neighbor increase our love for ourselves?
How might the way we love ourselves – or not – connect to our ability to love God?

Sit with these questions in prayer today, as a kind of diagnostic on your "love life." Talk to God about it, notice where your energy increases.

It’s good to know where we excel in love and where we might grow, for in the realm of God, love is all and all is Love.

10-17-14 - What is God's?

"Then Jesus said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’”

Give to God the things that are God’s.
Okay, what belongs to God? Isn’t everything God’s? Doesn’t the emperor also belong to God?
And if everything belongs to God – why does God need our gifts? Our tithes? Our offerings?

Maybe God doesn’t need anything from us. Maybe we need to give, because things get squirrely when we don’t, and because we are transformed when we do.

It can be easy to view the two kinds of “giving” Jesus talks about here as similar, parallel tracks, if you will. We owe the government our taxes to pay for the goods and services we need governments to render. We owe God our “dues” to pay for… well, what? Clergy and church buildings? Charity? We worship a God who has freely given us everything. We don't have to pay for it. So why give to God and God's mission on earth, expressed through Christ's Body, the church?

We give because it is the best way to express our gratitude for all that we’ve received. We give because it sets us free, opens us, changes our hearts. We give because we love seeing what happens to others when we do.

If our giving is stunted, it may be that we are not all that grateful. If we equate giving of our money and resources to God’s mission to “taxes” or “dues,” it becomes an obligation, a contractual exchange. That is not what giving is intended to be for Christians.

Where does giving give you the most joy?
When do you feel the least willing?
Both answers give us some ground for prayer – and action. Maybe we are being invited to give additionally in both categories. Maybe we want to strengthen our gratitude muscles.

We are to give as God has given us – and in Christ, we see God giving us everything, his most beloved son, his life. I was reminded recently that the classic U2 song, “With or Without You” is not about a human relationship, but the struggle to exist in faith and intimacy with the God you cannot see. “See the stone set in your eyes/ See the thorn twist in your side.” – big Jesus reference there. (The “she” in U2 songs often refers to the Holy Spirit or to grace…)

“I can’t live, with or without you,” Bono sings.
And the repeated refrain applies to both God and us in relationship to the giving God:
“And you give, and you give, and you give yourself away.”

And you never run out.

10-16-14 - God and Government

Did God ordain governments? In our time it is fashionable to demonize governments as purveyors of chaos and corruption, when the very purpose for which they came into being was to prevent those things, to secure a safe and equitable society where all citizens could thrive.

Yesterday I stood in a line for 90 minutes at Dulles Airport, waiting to have my passport reviewed so I could enter the country. There were far too few passport agents to meet the demand This was bureaucracy at its finest, not government at its finest, I thought, wondering why anyone would want to come to the US if this was the reception they received. (It might be better at other airports…)

Some passages in scripture read as though God very much works through political systems and leaders, even ones outside the people of Israel (read up on the Cyrus passages in Isaiah…). St. Paul, writing in Romans 13, claims that no ruler on earth can exercise power without God’s authority – which makes me wonder what he thinks about all the corrupt and oppressive rulers, of which his day saw as many or more than ours. Jesus, in the passage we are exploring this week, seems to take governments as a given, and doesn’t say where they fit in God’s realm. As he tells Pilate under interrogation, “My kingdom is not of this world.”

I believe government is a natural human phenomenon, as is institutional religion. Human beings have to organize around power, supplies and spirituality, and organizations soon take on a life and culture of their own. Like the human beings of which they are comprised, governments - and religious institutions - exist on a spectrum between good and evil, helpful and self-serving, visionary and banal. Government, especially in democracy, is us, and we are it. We don’t get to make it a “them.”

So where does that leave us as people of faith? Perhaps it leaves us with a call to be agents of healthier government and a more life-bringing body politic. In the waning weeks before our next election, as rhetoric grows more and more polarized and shrill, what if Christ followers participated as peacemakers, not trying to convince the irrational, but refraining from demonizing, holding up the values of justice and equity and freedom?

Sound like a pipe dream? We have at our hands the power that transforms world. Surely we can pray for our governments and those who desire to lead us.

I don’t know if God ordains governments. I do believe God will work through anyone who asks. Let’s ask.

10-15-14 - Church and State

I have been traveling in Norway, which, until quite recently, had a state church. Lutheran bishops were actually government appointees and civil servants. Appointments were often political - perhaps in terms of personal ambition and connection, but also to make points, as in liberal governments inflicting progressive bishops on conservative regions, and vice versa. 

It is hard to imagine how clergy might maintain an authentic prophetic voice, "speaking truth to power," as the cliche goes, when "power" is signing your paycheck. On the other hand, in that system, the state also supports the churches. Perhaps a pastor is freer to speak truth to his or her congregation if not relying upon its largesse for daily bread. Religious and civic life exist in essential, overlapping, but basically distinct realms. Human societies seem to do best when those two realms exist in creative tension, somewhat equally balanced in power and influence. We go off the rails, it seems, if either becomes too dominant - especially, I'm sorry to say, when it's religion that tries to run the show.

This week we are exploring how best to live in the tension of our dual citizenship, how to reflect the values of heaven on earth, and hold up the needs of earth before the power of heaven. How do you feel called to live in that creative tension? How might you invite the power of the Holy Spirit to work through you in secular endeavors? 

Might we make a discipline of praying for our political leaders, not just in church on Sundays, but on our own during the week? You might create a prayer list lifting a different leader or set of leaders in prayer each day. 

It's easy to get disgusted with governments; let's wield the spiritual power we've been given as well as our civic freedoms, being engaged citizens and prayer warriors. 

That might be the healthiest way for church and state to mingle... In us.

10-14-14 - God's Coins

In this week's gospel story we witness yet another confrontation between Jesus and the religious rulers, this time over whether to pay taxes to the Roman oppressors. They thought this a tidy trap - if he said "No," they could have him arrested for sedition; if "Yes," they could brand him a collaborator before his adoring crowds. Win/win, right?

Not for them. Jesus asks for a Roman coin. "Whose image do you see imprinted here?" he asks. "Caesar," they answer. "It's easy," he replies, "You owe this to the one who issued it. Give to the emperor what belongs to him, to God what belongs to God." And he dances out of another trap.

Genesis tells us that humankind was made in the image of God. St. Paul asserts that Jesus is the perfect image of the invisible God, and that we are united with Christ in baptism. Therefore we are stamped with the image of God in birth and in rebirth. We are the coins God has issued to the world, if you will, the means of God's generosity.

How does it change your self-perception to think of yourself as a coin bearing the image of your creator, the currency of the Almighty in the creation? What are coins? They are utilitarian, sure, yet also precious. And they are used to purchase things of value to their possessor. What is of value to God? That all of God's children thrive in freedom and plenty and wholeness.

How might we be expended as "God's coins" to bring that dream of God into being?

In prayer today, we might offer ourselves anew to God for service, and ask the Holy Spirit to show us where God wants to spend us today, or this week, or this year, or this lifetime. What visions come up as you sit in stillness with that question? Does anything resonate with your own dreams?

The currency we have bears the likeness of temporal authorities, and that's the realm in which we spend it. We bear the likeness of God, and so we give ourselves to be spent in God's realm. Bought with a price, we can more than double our value.

10-13-14 - Allegiance

I wonder if Jesus got tired of the questions. Seems he was constantly confronted by people wishing to trap him, or engaged by people in awe of this very different revelation he brought and the authority with which he spoke. He was like people they recognized, and yet so totally “other,” that they were constantly questioning him - and we get to eavesdrop.

This week, the question is: are we supposed to pay taxes to the government, if we owe all our allegiance to God? (Passage is Matthew 22:15-22; I can't seem to create a link in my iPad.) It’s a classic either/or question – and Jesus tends to embrace the both/and world of paradox. This drives the Pharisees nuts – and sometimes some of us.

The Pharisees we've come to know, champions of religious righteousness according to the Law. The Herodians presumably were aligned with the Jewish king, Herod, a puppet monarch on a short Roman leash. So here church and state come together to lay this trap for Jesus.

Once again, he refuses to play, but counters with a little show and tell: “'Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.”

Can we love our country and invest in its people and future AND love our God and invest in our eternal future? I think we can, and must. As embodied people of God we dwell In societies; our taxes and volunteering are part of loving our neighbors. Americans live this paradox every time we exchange currency with "In God We Trust" printed on it. It's not the same with cards or checks, but they represent that currency.

Our spiritual exercise today: each time you pay for something, anything, even online, offer a prayer of thanksgiving for the resources, of intercession for those who do not have our means, of blessing for the person receiving your money (even of blessing for the person receiving your money (even corporations, though not people, need blessing...), and reaffirm your trust in the One who provides all that we have. That should keep us praying all day.

In this life, we have dual citizenship. We are residents of this world with all the responsibilities and joys of being members of societies. And we are citizens of the heavenly realm, that already/not yet space of inbreaking power amidst our heart-breaking powerlessness. The coin of that realm is Love - and sometimes we show it with the coins we can touch.

10-10-14 - In or Out?

Jesus' parables often end with a tag line; this one's is: “For many are called, but few are chosen.” 
I guess this refers to the banqueting hall being full of people who were invited without regard to their suitability, to be evaluated and sorted out later. It’s not much comfort, is it, the idea that just being in the room doesn’t guarantee inclusion in the household of God.

Are we “in?” Do we want to be? Are we actually at the party, or just hanging out on the sidelines? Put another way, are we lukewarm church-goers or passionate Christ-followers? People like to say that the Episcopal version of this verse is, “Many are cold, but few are frozen.” What is our temperature at this feast?

Today try to imagine yourself at a feast, a celebration, whatever that looks like for you. The room is crowded. Where are you? Near the table, or hugging a wall somewhere, or in between? Why are you where you are? Where is Jesus in that room? Can you have a conversation with him? (It's one way to pray...)

I’d like to believe we are both called and chosen; I’ve never been much for doctrines like predestination or election. At the very least, I believe we are all invited, and we all have a choice to be present to the feast or pass it by. I hope you pull up a chair and pick up a fork.

I'd like to end this week with a hymn I wrote three years ago to go with this gospel reading. (If you want to sing it in your head, I put it to the tune of hymn 544, Duke Street, "Jesus shall reign where'er the sun")

Clothed in Holiness

Clothed in holiness, bathed in glory,
Born anew in sacred story.
From north and south, from west and east
Saints throng to your wedding feast.

Send out the heralds, the banquet waits
Leave your distractions, don’t be late.
The master calls, the feast prepared
of food divine and wine so rare.

If the invited will not come
Send out the word to deaf and dumb
All who are sick, lame, hopeless, lost
Called by the host who spares no cost.

And if your clothes are ragged, old,
New garments spun of finest gold
Are giv’n to all who heed the call:
This invitation is for all.

So in we pour, all sorts, all kinds,
The least in front, the first behind.
No class or label can divide
This Bridegroom from his chosen bride.

Clothed in holiness, bathed in glory,
Born anew in sacred story.
From north and south, from west and east
We throng into our wedding feast.

10-9-14 - Fashion Police

In Matthew’s telling, Jesus’ parable of the great banquet takes an odd turn after the influx of late arrivals from the streets and lanes:

“Those servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’"

Wow – does correct attire matter that much to this king in Jesus’ story? This part of the story has always puzzled me the most; it seems so unjust. This man didn’t know he was coming to a wedding, right? How could he have been expected to wear a “wedding robe,” whatever that is? And isn’t Jesus the one who said, “Don’t judge a book by its cover?” Actually no… but the sentiment seems about right. Jesus did say we should judge what’s inside a person, not externals. What the heck is going on here?

No one fully knows, of course. Some scholars think there were certain items of clothing people wore to weddings. Here’s what I think it might mean: that even those who didn’t have much advance invitation had the opportunity to turn, to repent, to “clean up,” as it were. Is that what is meant by the “wedding robe?” And this person is just wandering around, clueless, unconscious, unrepentant and unresponsive.

This makes me think of those verses in the scriptures that speak of being “clothed in righteousness,” and
“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”
“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”

And in Revelation 19:7-8 we have this promise: “...for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready; to her it has been granted to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure — for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.”

What do you feel “clothed in” today? Is it what you want to be wearing? Might you try on another suit, another dress, one that is more like what you want to feel like, how you want to be seen at the banquet? As a prayer exercise today, try playing “dress-up” with God; put on the feelings of the people you’re praying for, or the feelings you’d like to have.

Martin Luther wrote of God’s grace in Christ as the “Great Exchange,” by which Christ took on our filthy beggars’ rags and gives us his royal robes to wear. Christ has clothed us in HIS holiness. He covers even the most shameful parts of us, the parts we think are unlovable. He loves us into love.

In his righteousness, his holiness, his glory, we can stand unashamed, unhidden. We can allow our true selves to be seen, knowing that we are loved beyond measure by the God who made us, redeemed us, and loves us to the end of time. We are princes and princesses – let’s dress like we know it.

10-8-14 - Get Me New Guests!

I find it hard to read this parable of the wedding banquet and not think of half-empty churches. In the story, the King has prepared a beautiful wedding feast for his son and invited all the people who used to come to his house… and now none of them will. Enraged, he says to his servants,

“The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

As Jesus tells the story, given how he’s been talking to the religious leaders, and how he’s been known to interact with the not-good-enough of his society – the lame, the lepers, the extortioners and “loose women” - it seems pretty obvious that that’s who the people found on the streets represent. These people are seemingly found, herded onto the king’s buses and brought back to populate his banquet hall. The servants aren’t choosy – they just bring everybody in.

What would it look like if we sent buses around shelters and parks on Sunday mornings and invited people to come to our feasts? Would we be prepared to deal with strangers, people’s disappointment and addictions, with the chips on their shoulders? Would we be prepared to see them not as wounded strangers but as gifts, with assets and strengths we need in our congregations?

What would it look like if we took church out to them instead of asking them into our buildings? For a time, my congregation did this in a “tougher” section of town. We went from bringing sandwiches and healing prayer to my telling Jesus stories (aka, preaching) on the curb as people sat their in their lawn chairs with their bottles. It was amazing - until gentrification struck and the people who hung out there dispersed, and it all faded away.

The poor and the lame are not the only people God wants at the feast. God also wants the stressed over-achievers, the multi-tasking moms, the doubters and questioners. This parable suggests that God wants everybody at God’s table. Who are we not inviting?

That is today’s suggested spiritual task: make a list of everyone your congregation does not seem to be extending an invitation to.

The ones who are being invited are by and large not coming. Who else are we to invite?

10-7-14 - No Thanks

I once had a friend who would turn down invitations to do things with me because she’d received other offers she preferred, sometimes even after she’d accepted my invitation. While I admired her honesty, it bothered me that I didn’t to rate very high on her list. Not that I was about to burn down her village or anything…

The invited guests in Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet have no qualms about turning down the King’s invitation to his feast – in fact, they seem to have no respect for this king whatsoever. The first group just say, “No.” Then the king sends other servants out and says, “'Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.' But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them."

One to his farm, another to his business. In Luke’s version the excuses are more creative – one just got married and didn’t want to leave his new wife just yet. Who are these people who put God's invitations last?

Well… on any given day, it can be you or me or any one we know. There is no end to other priorities, it seems, when it comes to engaging the spiritual. It has to be on our schedule, and not when there’s anything else we’d rather do, or when the coach has called a soccer practice or the boss a new deadline. Just think of all the reasons people give for not coming to church.

And yet, if you’re reading this today, chances are you have put engaging with God-Life above quite a few other demands on your time. Something about spending time and energy in the presence of God or God’s people, in praise and worship, in acts of mercy and justice, has been compelling enough that you’ve actually said yes to this invitation to the banquet, not once but many times.

What made the difference for you? If we can zero in on that, it may be that we can issue the invitation in a way that more people in our lives can respond to it. That doesn’t have to mean lowest-common-denominator consumer Christianity – some of the highest-commitment faith communities are the most robust. But it does have to be lively, full of life, real, true life. That’s what people are hungry for. What is it about the way we practice our faith that sometimes obscures the life at its heart?

Make a list today of all the reasons you’ve said yes to God’s invitation, and why you stay at God’s table. And if there is a list of excuses you’ve made or continue to make, you might list those too. Look at both lists and see what common threads become apparent. Where in these gifts and obstacles might you find the seeds of an invitation to a friend or acquaintance?

God’s banquet is waiting. In this life, we only experience the feast in parts – but oh, how rich even those morsels can be. Who is God sending you out to invite?

10-6-14 - Who Loves a Wedding?

A story about a wedding. What a relief after the violence of last week’s parable of the vineyard. Who doesn’t love a wedding? Except that this nice parable about a wedding seems more like a Quentin Tarantino movie, with an enraged host, slaughtered guests and a bewildered party crasher. Granted, this is the way Matthew tells the story, and he seems always to ratchet up the violence. In Luke’s telling it is a lot milder.

It’s not actually a story about a wedding – it’s a story about invitation. An invitation spurned by indifferent guests, and the consequences. It’s a story about a host who won’t take “no” for an answer. The nutshell version: 

A king gives a wedding banquet for his son. He sends servants to gather the invited guests, but they won’t come to the feast. He sends other servants with the message that the feast is ready, but these are mocked and given excuses, and then molested and killed. The enraged king retaliates, killing the offenders and burning their city, and then sends his servants out to the streets to invite everyone they find, “both good and bad,” to fill his wedding hall. One, who is not appropriately dressed, gets thrown out. Nice story, huh? (I think Matthew may have embellished the tale in the telling, but who can be sure… It does make a LOT more sense in Luke…)

What is this parable actually about? Like many of Jesus’ parables, it is in part about his claim that the leading religious figures have ignored God’s invitation offered through the prophets and ultimately through Jesus, to come to the feast prepared for them. Since the people of Israel have not been faithful to the Lord their God, God will send representatives to the “highways and byways,” gathering up the good and the bad people his realm – and sort out later who gets to stick around. If the King in Jesus’ story represents God, it’s not the loveliest picture of God – especially the part about killing the would-be guests and burning down their city.

On another level, it is a story about how easy it can be to put aside the claims and gifts of God and lose ourselves in the mundane and the worldly. We’ll explore that aspect more tomorrow.

Today, I suggest you read the story aloud to yourself, and notice where you get snagged. Give it some thought and read it again… what questions arise? What invitations do you hear? What warnings?

It is rather hard to find the Good News in this story – it’s very bad news for the people who have ignored God’s call to be his people, and so-so news for the ones scooped up on the streets, who may get to stay at the feast, or may be tossed into outer darkness. Where is the Good News for you?

10-3-14 - Fruits of the Kingdom

As we read the Gospels and even the book of Acts, it seems clear that neither Jesus nor his followers had any intention of starting a new religious system. They were trying to reform the tradition they’d inherited, a temple- based Judaism that had become leadership-heavy and legalistic. But from what Jesus says in his interpretation of this parable, it does seem clear that he expected the reform to involve a total change of leadership and operation: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”

So, what exactly are the “fruits of the Kingdom?”

We can glean what Jesus meant by the way he taught and the way he interacted with people. Chief among the fruits is repentance – that seems to be where we start in our relationship with God, by seeing ourselves honestly and clearly and finding out that God loves us as we are – and too much to leave us that way.

So repentance is related to another prime Kingdom fruit - healing.

Generosity seems to be a big fruit of the kingdom - an ability to loosen our grip on what is “ours” and share with all as any have need. We can really only do this when we truly love our neighbors as ourselves.

So we’d have to put love of neighbor as self on that list, and from that flow all kinds of other fruits.

A desire for justice and peace-making are fruits of the Kingdom, and a commitment to community in the Body of Christ.

What would you add to this list? What fruits do you see most often in your life? What do you wish you saw more of, in yourself and in the church around you?

If the Kingdom has been entrusted to us, are we helping to bring forth good fruit, transformed lives and a transformed world? I think that’s what Jesus had in mind… 

10-2-14 - Gotcha

There is a pattern in these parables Jesus told his “frenemies,” the scribes and Pharisees: story, question, gotcha. Jesus would set up a situation of obvious injustice and then ask how they would resolve it. They would give an answer that, once they realized who represented them in the parable, indicted them. It’s amazing how often they fell for it.

So it is here. Jesus tells the story of the vineyard and the wicked tenants, and then asks, “’Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’”

“Gotcha,” Jesus says – “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”

God is going to take the leadership away from you, he says, and give it to others, outsiders, outcasts, outliers, who will produce the fruit at harvest time, the fruit of repentance, the fruit of good works, the fruit of worship. Jesus uses an image from Psalm 118:22, of a stone, once rejected as unsuitable, now become the cornerstone of a new building. This theme is oft- repeated in salvation history, as God chooses unlikely candidates on which to build his community, like Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David. And we see it fulfilled in Jesus.

Jesus takes this familiar verse and turns it against the leaders: 

"The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
At this, the Pharisees and scribes realize he’s been talking about them, and the gloves are off. They begin to actively seek his arrest, but are afraid to offend the crowds, who see Jesus as a prophet. They might have taken what Jesus said to heart and examined their leadership, or welcomed the “unworthy’ to become full members of the religious community. But they are stuck in their own pride and self-righteousness.

In prayer today, let’s remember leaders, religious or secular, who seem stuck or blind to the big picture. Let’s pray especially for those leaders whom we don’t trust – they need God’s blessing the most. And let’s pray for those who appear to be on the outside, whom we don’t want to welcome in.

It seems to be a principle that as soon as we start to think we’re insiders, God upsets the apple cart and invites outsiders to our party, challenging our notions of what should be. We may as well try to get there first, and invite those outliers in ourselves. Or better yet, go out and join them, so we can be invited in.

10-1-14 - The Son

Many religious traditions revere one or more figures who received a revelation from which that tradition flowed. Some have prophets, some gurus, some gods or goddesses, some martyrs. The Christian tradition goes further, claiming that, in addition to prophetic and angelic messengers, God sent his own son to set people free from the consequences of sin and death.

If an important person sends her daughter or son to represent her, it means a little more than if their aide or staffer shows up. A daughter or son is more like that person, carrying her very DNA. The claim that Jesus of Nazareth was not only a good and holy man chosen by God as Messiah, but actually the incarnated son of God is a pretty big claim, one Christians have been trying to defend ever since.

Why does it matter that we consider Jesus the fully human, fully divine Son of God? Incarnation is a gift for all kinds of reasons, an indication of how far God is willing to go to bridge the gap to humankind. But it is in his sacrifice on the cross that the son-ship of Jesus perhaps matters most. As the sacrifice to end the whole bloody system of sacrifice, God offers the ultimate victim. As a friend once said, trying to explain the Cross – “You can’t get a bigger sacrificial victim than the Son of God.”

We can leave for another day the discussion of whether Jesus had to die and how his sacrifice set us free… traditional Christian doctrine says he did and it does. Each of us must find our way into that mystery. For today, let’s explore a smaller mystery – that in this parable, this very Son of God tells a story about a fictional son who is to be beaten and killed by those who charged with nurturing the harvest with which they’d been entrusted. Once again, Jesus is predicting his own death – and charging his listeners with murder. If they hadn’t already wanted to kill him, now they surely did.

In Jesus’ story, the wicked tenants seize the son, throw him out of the vineyard and kill him. So Jesus was cast out by the temple leadership who ultimately could not swallow his claims of divinity – or his growing influence. They told themselves they were just getting rid of yet another trouble-maker, not the Son of God. And yet Jesus’ son-ship remained a fact they had to deal with – even more after his death.

How does Jesus’ “son-ship” affect your faith?
Do you feel closer to God through knowing Jesus, however imperfectly we may know him in this life?
These are questions worth exploring as we live into a relationship with God through the Son whom we first meet in Jesus of Nazareth. They are worth exploring in prayer – we can say simply, “Jesus, I want to know God more fully. Let me see you," and see what unfolds.

How does knowing Jesus help us draw nearer the mystery of God? Jesus told his followers that if they’d seen him, they’d seen the Father. The best way to find out is to invite the Holy Spirit to dwell with us. It is the Spirit who brings us the presence of Christ, every time.